FOXBOROUGH – The obscure NFL rule giveth, and the obscure NFL rule taketh away.
A week after a penalty for pushing led to a Patriots loss, a penalty against the Dolphins for illegally batting the ball set up a game-winning touchdown in the Patriots’ 27-17 victory on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The batting rule isn’t new – last week’s pushing penalty against Chris Jones vs. the New York Jets it was installed this season – but it is not called very often, and made a big difference in the win.
Facing a second-and-7 from the Dolphins’ 23, quarterback Tom Brady was strip-sacked by safety Jimmy Wilson. Miami’s Olivier Vernon went after the loose ball, and it squirted away from him. Nate Solder finally recovered it for the Patriots, but not until the ball was near midfield.
But the officials flagged Vernon for an illegal bat, saying he deliberately knocked the ball away from a New England player. The penalty was enforced at the point of the foul, the 23-yard line, giving the Patriots 10 yards and a fresh set of downs.
Now just 13 yards from the end zone, the Patriots turned the new chance into the game-winning touchdown.
On Twitter, former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira said the call against Vernon was the right one.
It capped quite a comeback for the Patriots, who were down 17-3 at halftime.
Looking for their first win at Gillette Stadium since Sept. 21, 2008, the day they unveiled their Wildcat package to great success, Miami had all the answers early Sunday.
Though the offense went three-and-out to open the game, the Dolphins’ defense intercepted Brady on his first pass attempt. Brady was throwing to Rob Gronkowski, and the ball appeared to be a bit behind the tight end, a fairly easy grab for cornerback Dimitri Patterson.
Starting in Patriots’ territory, quarterback Ryan Tannehill went to a formula that became familiar as the afternoon went on, going to tight end Charles Clay and running back Lamar Miller often. Then Tannehill rolled to his right and found Brandon Gibson, who ran for the right sideline, but before he ran out of real estate, he cut back inside, leaving Marquice Cole behind him for a 7-0 lead.
It was the 14th red-zone touchdown in 19 attempts for the Dolphins, the second-best success rate in the league behind Denver.
Gibson left the game on Miami’s next possession, limping off the field with a knee injury. NFL Network reported it was a season-ending injury for the fifth-year wideout.
New England went three-and-out on its second possession, with Brady overthrowing Gronkowski on a downfield pass on third-and-8.
The first two carries of that possession went to starting running back LeGarrette Blount. Stevan Ridley did not make an appearance until five minutes had passed in the second quarter. It is unclear why he had to wait so long to get a snap, but it may have been punitive. Rookie Logan Ryan, who was fined by the NFL for grabbing his genitals celebrating a touchdown against the Jets a week earlier, did not play until the second half.
Miami doubled its lead to 14-0 in the second quarter, with Miller and fellow running back Daniel Thomas gaining all but 11 of the 58 yards the Dolphins picked up on their way to the end zone.
Thomas got the touchdown when Tannehill threaded a pass for him near the goal line. He fell into the end zone as he caught it for his third touchdown of the season.
The Patriots scored on their ensuing opportunity, though it was only a field goal after they stalled in the red zone. When Brandon Bolden was dropped for a one-yard loss on third-and-2 from the 15, there was a smattering of boos from the Gillette Stadium crowd.
There were more boos when the Patriots took a knee to close out the first half, despite having 30 seconds and all three timeouts to at least get into field-goal range and cut Miami’s lead, knowing they were getting the ball to open the third quarter.
But that first drive went nowhere, with Brady sacked on third down.
However, Miami kicker Caleb Sturgis hit the right upright on a 46-yard field-goal try when Miami got the ball, and it seemed to turn the tide for the Patriots.
Keyed by a 23-yard run by Ridley (with some nice blocking by Kenbrell Thompkins on the play), the Patriots got their first touchdown when Brady hit Aaron Dobson in the left-third of the end zone as he was being hit by Philip Wheeler.
It was the first time the Patriots had scored in 16 possessions, dating to the first half of the Jets game, and their first third-quarter touchdown of the season; they came into the day outscored 44-9 by opponents in the third quarter.
Two plays into the Dolphins’ next possession, Ryan strip-sacked Tannehill deep in Miami territory, and Rob Ninkovich recovered.
The Patriots tied the game with a Bolden touchdown, and took their first lead of the game just before the quarter ended on a 48-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.